In the Second before You Die
In the second before you die, you realize a horrible secret that has been kept from you your entire life.
It was impossible for you to understand it until the second before your death. But there have been hints. Bad feelings at parties. Half-remembered movements from a nightmare you can't explain without sounding silly.
Up until this second, you have had an idea of the shape of your life. You have a story explaining who you are. This is a story you've told to others and, mostly, to yourself. The story is wrong. You can't know the story yet. You can't know the story because you don't know the secret. And you won't know the secret until the second before you die.
The secret has underpinned and influenced all the major events of your life. It has been present at every disappointment, every small victory, every moment spent laughing or sneezing or allowing your chattering mind to slacken in front of a screen.
In a way, you already know the secret. You have always known. And in the small eternity of that second before your death, the tenuous connecting threads of the narrative you've built for yourself will unravel, and the truth will come into its inescapable alignment.
In the minute before you die, you get a song stuck in your head. Think about the ad jingles of your life: the ridiculous one for the car dealership, for example. Think about the insipid songs of childhood: anthems about Christopher Columbus or getting potty trained. Think about the first pop song that, as you developed a taste in music separate from that of your parents or friends, you decided was an assault on the ears of humans everywhere. Think of the last song that came on the radio and made you want to swerve into oncoming traffic.
Think about these songs, or try not to. It doesn't matter. Because the one you hate the most is going to get stuck in your head the minute before you die.
One hour before you die, you feel like you've forgotten something. You have. What you've forgotten are your buried hopes, your dormant aspirations, your secret shames. You've forgotten things you've done that, if remembered, would so fundamentally alter the way you see yourself as a person that you wouldn't, in a very real sense, be able to live with yourself.
You retrace your footsteps. You stand baffled in the room you were in just a moment ago. You're really close to remembering. It'll come to me any minute now, you think.
The day before you die, you find a scrap of paper on your counter. You reach over to throw it away, then see the message scrawled out in tiny letters: hELP
You're alone in your kitchen. It's possible there's someone else coming home to join you; it's possible there isn't. Who has time to remember these things?
You don't recognize the handwriting. But then, it's not really handwriting. More like scratches on paper, hurried but hard. The marks are deep enough that they show up as raised lines on the other side of the paper: PLEh
Maybe it's a prank. Not even a particularly clever one, at that. Maybe it was a friend who stopped by for a visit, or the person who might be coming home to join you. You could have written it.
Hello? You call to your empty kitchen. Is anyone there? The refrigerator hums. The ice settles with a muffled clack. You throw the note away as if it will do any good.
Six months before you die, you start seeing an unusual number of dying birds. You see them on the sidewalk, in your neighbor's yard, under the awning of your neighborhood café. Robins, sparrows, grackles. You only know about five types of bird, and you see all of them in agony. One wing flapping frantically and uselessly, small heads pressed against the ground. They jerk around in a circular motion that, you're a little ashamed to admit, makes you think of breakdancing. Other times, both wings useless, they rock side to side like an upended turtle.
You make a call to your local animal hospital. No, they don't take wild birds. You imagine taking them home, giving them a warm place and a meal for their final hours. But you know that won't work. You wouldn't know how to carry them or what to feed them. Plus you don't want to touch them. It seems gross.
You don't know why you're always the one to find these birds. You just know you want to do something for them and their tiny, broken bird necks. You think of putting down your beloved dog when he got too sick to walk. You think of all the people you've known who go on about what should be done without ever taking action. You know what you have to do.
You really make a mess of the first one. You're not wearing even close to the right kind of shoes. Plus you hesitated because, well, you're not a monster. You had to finish the job in a nightmarish frenzy. When it was over, you were sweating, despite the unseasonable cool. You felt queasy and exhilarated. You are not violent by nature, but when the occasion arose, you stepped up. The colors around you seem a little sharper now, and the pain in your lower back has subsided. Your sense of smell—you always seem to be congested these days—is coming in clear. Taking something out of this world has brought you back into it. You would never say you enjoyed doing what you did. But you know you feel more alive than you did in the moments before the dying bird.
The rest of your encounters end in a similar way, but cleaner. You're more confident, and you make a point to wear heavy shoes. You walk through your neighborhood feeling like an angel of mercy. You imagine your footsteps bring the writhing birds comfort in their final moments.
Then one day you're outside the hospital, having delivered yet another dying bird—this one was a finch, you're pretty sure—to eternal peace. A woman comes up to you, an expression of horror on her face. She asks why on Earth you did that. You explain you were helping the bird. It was in pain, its neck was broken. She tells you that's almost definitely not true: birds fly into things and get stunned, sometimes, but rarely do their necks break. Mostly, after a few minutes or an hour, they get up and fly away unharmed.
You don't have much to say except Oh before you slink away. There's blood and a single, mottled feather on your shoe. You walk away from the woman and the bird with no destination. You really need to wipe your shoe.
The year before you die, someone taps your shoulder on the street.
You don't know them. They're much younger than you. The first thing you notice about them—even if you're not the kind of person who normally notices or pays attention to these things—is that they have really nice skin. It's practically perfect. They have striking eyes as well. Very large irises. You look at them, a little curious, a little annoyed, and wait for them to say something. They don't. Instead, they smile. It's a big smile, but you wouldn't exactly describe it as a friendly one. And though they're looking right at you, it seems like it's a smile that's not meant for you. It's a smile that is maybe only even tangentially related to you.
Around you, people are brushing past. You realize that wow, their irises are really big. Like maybe it's unhealthy for them to be that big. You are frightened for them, for their health. This is what you tell yourself as fear swells in your belly and your thighs.
And then they're gone. They turn and walk away without a backward glance. You relax your shoulders, which were bunched up by your ears, and unclench your sphincter. That was weird, you think. You keep walking. After an hour, you've basically forgotten the encounter. A lingering unease burbling up from your stomach is its only trace.
Months pass. You walk your normal routes. Sometimes you feel uneasy and you don't know why. One day, you look up as a bus drives by. For a split second, you make eye contact with someone. It seems as if they'd been staring at you. You remember the moment on the sidewalk then. Is it the same person? The bus windows are smudged and dirty. It's impossible to tell with any certainty. But the feeling was the same: the smile, the perfect skin. The too-large eyes upon you.
The moments of unease increase in the weeks following. You catch glimpses of what might be them in cafés, on distant park benches, on high floors of office towers. You're out for a walk, and to one side of you is a wide field. On the other side of the field, a figure stands there, motionless. It's too far to see, but you know who it is. The apartment across the alley from yours, the one where you could sometimes spot the young couple making love in their window. Someone is staring out their bedroom window, standing right where the bed used to be. The couple moved out a month ago. You pull your curtain back, stare, and give a wave.
And then, abruptly, they stop. You wait weeks. You look for them through windows and open fields. No sign of them. More weeks, still nothing. You know this should come as a relief. But you feel a small sense of loss. You were getting used to seeing them. You're convinced they were conveying a message. And now you'll never know what they were trying to tell you.
Five years before you die, nothing remarkable happens.
For a lifetime before you die, you have the feeling you've forgotten something. You have. It's the secret from the second before your death. You've had enough hints to piece it together. They might have been a line from a sitcom rerun, a joke from a friend, a line of bathroom graffiti. A wrong note in a song. The clues are all around you, but you don't know how to look. So the feeling persists. It ebbs and flows with time, but it never really goes away. Huh, you think to yourself. You run your hand through your hair and check your phone. You can't remember what it was. That's really weird. Huh.
was born in Cleveland. His work has appeared in venues like The Normal School, Fiction Southeast
. He has served as a nonfiction editor on The Southeast Review
. In 2020, he was awarded an Individual Excellence Award in fiction from the Ohio Arts Council.